A Weekend In Wyoming
I am sad enough to weep tonight, and I may do so. As night falls in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, I am holed up in a hotel awaiting an early flight back to Connecticut tomorrow. For the past two days, I've been back at the ranch, visiting with friends at the Trial Lawyers College. I went there to honor a good man on the occasion of his 8oth birthday and the fifteenth anniversary of the college he founded.
The festivities continue tonight, but I did not plan a long stay. Gerry Spence and I have a history, and we've both written it in lines that I sometimes do not care to read: It seemed better to come and to go quickly. Besides, the ranch attracts an unusually passionate and exhausting crowd. I'd not set foot on the grounds since 2000, so this past weekend I milled around with scores of others who have come there and staked their own claim to magic. I was an old-timer, and found comfort with others whose roots go back to the 1990s: Mike Strain, David Goldenberg, Paul Dumas. They took me in as I am, warts and all.
To prepare for the weekend I re-read Lord of the Flies. Strip away the veneer of civilization and what beasts emerge? I know my ghosts loom ever-present and haunting; it was the ghosts stirring in others that I dreaded. When I was last involved in the ranch I watched some students hustle the crowd and the faculty to earn invitations back as staff; I got hustled, and resented it. A few students got their wish, and, to use the words of another family, became made men. The grapevine reports that some of them want my scalp for turning on the tribe. It wearied me to consider tense confrontations.
Odd things occurred this weekend. One woman thanked me for work I did with her two years running at a seminar at Mount Palomar in the late 1990s. I was flattered, of course, but, frankly, I do not recall much of the trips to Southern California as part of the college faculty; I don't recall the young woman's case at all. I tried to be gracious and sought the shelter of anonymity as quickly as my feet could carry me.
Another soul was kind enough to tell me how much she enjoys my blog. "You don't look at all like what I expected you to look like," she said. I mumbled something about not knowing whether that was a compliment or an insult, and beat a hasty retreat to some silent place.
On Saturday, Gerry passed the baton to a new lord of the flies, Jude Basile. This was not unexpected but had the subtle feel of a palace coup or smoke pouring from the chimney at St. Peter's. Basile is now the new president of the college. Spence has, in a sense, stepped down. The board decided this, Spence said. So now the college has a new president for life. It is not that simple.
This is a tricky move and it is an open question whether the college can survive. It is a charismatic institution; the main draw is Spence. Like him or not, he has published a dozen or so books and is a towering populist. He rants, he roars, he cajoles in a way that mesmerizes. He has become an icon to many by shunning convention.
Basile, by contrast, is a former college athlete, recruited to play quarterback at Notre Dame. When it was apparent that he would not play in South Bend, Basile transferred to a small college, where he was a star. He now practices law in California in a small one-man firm, handling a case or two at a time with stellar results. But Basile lacks Spence's master passion; when he speaks spines don't tingle, rather one waits in vain for the pregnant pauses piling one upon another to yield something other than the conviction that Basile is simply a good and decent man. Basile is an effective lawyer and a good behind the scene's man. But a visionary?
Begone charisma, and welcome something akin to the bureaucratic ethos. Rumor has it that there will be a renewed emphasis on staff training. Psychodrama will remain integral. Perhaps trial skills will be given greater emphasis. But from where I sat this weekend, it all took on a dreadful, homogenized tone. Gone are the heady days when eccentric souls could gather in the cool summer nights around a campfire to find inspiration in the wee hours of the night. "Talent," Goethe once said, "does what it can; genius does what it must." One senses the ranch is no longer safe for genius; is mere talent enough?
The college now plans, raises funds, organizes. Basile's hand may be too steady to nurture the creative genius. We don't need another National Institute of Trial Advocacy.
And as for Spence? I made no effort to find myself alone with him; nor did he with me. This was a time to celebrate and luxuriate. Spence and a dozen of us spent a few hours outside the cookhouse this morning sharing jokes and funny stories. I swear Paul Dumas of Mexico, Maine, ought to record his stories. He's as good a storyteller as Spence.
While we were sitting together, Spence pointed at Dumas, Goldenberg, Strain and me. He thanked us for being thorns in his side. Thanks to us, he said, he has learned to grow calluses, even in old age. He pointed a spindly finger at me and told the others I was still a source of challenge to him.
"Things are complicated between us, " I said.
"No, they are not," he replied. And he told me he read the last blog entry I had written about the magic mirror, intimating that if I could not draw close to him as I had in times past it was because of issues I brought to the surface.
I did not disagree with him at the time. But on the drive to Jackson this afternoon, I realized he was wrong. In this instance, I am holding the mirror, not Spence. He confided in me once that my departure from the ranch and public betrayal of him was one the most painful things he had experienced as an adult, rating with a sorrow too deep to be revealed here.
I was stunned by that. Clearly, the man became important to me, a sort of substitute father figure. But why, I asked him, had I become so important to him? What about my actions could conceivably be so important to him? I asked him about it one day, and the only response I got was: "That's a good question." The question remains unanswered, and, I suspect, unexamined.
I suspect I will never get an answer. So I have a choice. I can hold the mirror up to this niggling response to a serious question, and return evasion for evasion. Or I can do something larger and let the mirror fall to the ground, hoping it shatters.
Today, I watched a man I love walk alone across a sun-baked field. It may be the last time I see him. We've laughed together and we've each shed tears over things held in common and apart. I keep seeing him walking under an overcast Wyoming sky, tall grass licking his legs as he lumbered forward. I wanted then to thank him for all he has done for me. But I didn't.
Spence has been a better friend and mentor than I deserved. None of us master the currents life sets before us; we are all undone in the end. But I respect the shape he gave to the storms raging within him. He taught me something about grace, and, more importantly, he taught me to accept the sorrows that time yields. I am filled with sorrow tonight, but I know this sorrow is strength, not weakness. Do not go easy into the night, Gerry, but go knowing that there is a modest shelter of sorts here for you; it is not uncritical, but it is, perhaps, for that very reason real. It is a gift I can give.